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Labor of Love

Dave and Annie Mulcahy have spent 30 years building a home near Bigfork with their own hands, sourcing salvaged materials from historical landmarks and thrifty secondhand discoveries to gradually turn their napkin-sketched blueprint into reality

It’s a cliché, but if the walls could talk at 588 Ranch Road, outside of Bigfork, they would have endless tales to tell. There’s a story about every piece of wood and every accessory in the house.

Each length of timber inside the breezeway, which connects the open-plan kitchen and dining room to a living room set with large picture windows, has a history. The moldings along the floor are quarter rounds from St. Ann’s Academy, an old Catholic boarding school in British Columbia built in 1871. Part of the mantel is hemlock from Vancouver Island. Surrounding the door to the deck is framing from a house in Victoria, B.C., and a coffee table is pockmarked with screwdriver holes from years of use by shop students at Whitefish High School.

Dave Mulcahy can identify the origins of every single board (and window, and section of aluminum siding, and latch) in his house, an impressive feat made more so by the scope of the home: 5,500 square feet on the corner of a two-acre lot southeast of Bigfork. Mulcahy built it entirely with his own hands and the help of his wife, Annie. The Canadian couple has spent the last 30 years slowly chipping away, adding, furnishing, refining.

“The story of this house is backwards,” Dave said. “There’s no blueprints; it’s all from a napkin.”

The design on the napkin was simple, just a rectangular footprint scaled to measure 48 by 28 feet. Dave was sitting in a restaurant at Big Mountain when he sketched it out. The Mulcahys had just purchased land in Bigfork, and despite having only limited experience in building (Dave had done minor renovations on their house in Canada), they decided to dive into the project, not knowing it would take most of their adult lives to complete.

“It’s the idea that if you put in a toilet, that’s just one job,” Dave said. “I decided to think about a house as a lot of little jobs.”

A parlor area in Annie and Dave Mulcahy’s Bigfork home on July 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

One of the upstairs bathrooms has a French country feel, with a mirror framed in red wood, which came an old farm gate that Dave bought for a dollar.

“There are some bargains in the house, but I try to make them feel not like a bargain,” Dave said.

The farm gate shows up elsewhere in frames across the home’s three floors.

“Dave just finds these treasures, sitting in humps of dust,” Annie said. “He finds materials, old materials, and loves to repurpose them — this was before using reclaimed materials was popular.”

One find was a pile of 16-foot lengths of wood from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Kalispell. Dave used the lengths to make seven barn doors (with handles made from a rusted farm cart spring), which adorn rooms throughout the house.

One barn door looms at the top of the entryway stairs, which were repaired using leftover wood from the same salvage run. The door slides open into one of several “boxes” that Dave built into the home.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do inside,” Dave said. “I thought, ‘oh, I’ll have a little mudroom,’ so I built a box.”

The first box turned out so well that he kept building more. One became the breezeway, another the main floor powder room.

Working for less than five months a year, due to visitation rules for Canadians, the house slowly coalesced.

“The more it came together, the more thoughts I had,” Dave said.

Annie and Dave Mulcahy stand outside their Bigfork home on July 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After framing the house, he left it sheathed in plywood for months, without window holes cut out. He was waiting for the right idea to pop into his head.

On a trip down to Missoula, Dave happened to pass through a warehouse where windows were on sale for half price due to a mistake. He bought all 33 in the stack, and today they form bridges between the Mulcahys’ house interior and the forest outside.

Thirty-three just happens to be the Mulcahys’ lucky number. It took exactly 33 yards of pea gravel to support the house’s foundation, and the lot was number 33.

While driving through Bigfork, discussing which properties the couple liked best, Dave bought a bottle of Rolling Rock beer at Woody’s Country Store and read the poem inscribed on the glass.

“FROM THE GLASS LINED TANKS OF/ OLD LATROBE/WE TENDER THIS PREMIUM BEER/ FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT, AS A/ TRIBUTE TO YOUR GOOD TASTE./ IT COMES/ FROM THE MOUNTAIN SPRINGS/ TO YOU/ 33”

“I got goosebumps,” Dave said.

He cold-called the owner of lot 33, which wasn’t actually for sale, and walked away from the conversation with a steal of a deal.

Since the built-in bar on the ground floor was finished — topped with wood salvaged from Dave’s high school — it has always been stocked with Rolling Rock for guests.

“It gives me a chance to tell the story of this place,” Dave said.

A hallway in Annie and Dave Mulcahy’s Bigfork home on July 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The main floor’s powder room sink once sat in the Empress Hotel in British Columbia. Kitchen drawers were reclaimed from a haberdashery in Victoria. The slate hearths of the four yokel stoves came from a school that Annie’s 92-year-old mother attended in Victoria. A corner hutch in the loft is a 1880s Dutch piece found at an antique sale. 

Of all the historic and tale-worthy pieces in the house, Dave’s favorites are in the bathroom above the garage, the home’s last addition.

Above the shower is a section of wood checkered with dark lines. The plank, picked out of a lumber pile Dave spotted on a property in Whitefish, was used as a step during the early building years, supported by a milk carton that left a mark. On the adjacent wall, the block of wood over the doorframe came from a barn just down the road. Removing a portion of the block reveals a mortise and tenon joint that once held the barn together.

“This industrious farmer, he didn’t use an oak peg,” Dave said. “This is a piece of tumbleweed. That’s what held his barn together, and I wanted to highlight that by exposing it.”

While it isn’t the basic farmhouse renovation the Mulcahys’ once envisioned, they’ve loved every year of work on their house.

“Sometimes we sit here and we have a small job to do and feel tired,” Annie said. “Then we look around and go, ‘How the hell did we do all this?’”

The kitchen in Annie and Dave Mulcahy’s Bigfork home on July 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Mulcahys decided to sell the house a year ago, in order to move back to Canada full-time to be closer to Annie’s mother and their son, Jack.

Until the property sells — it was recently taken off the market — the couple acknowledges that the tinkering will continue.

“It’ll never end, but to be honest, it’s been an experience and it’s been an adventure,” Dave said. “You’d think we’d be really sad [about selling], but honestly we’re going to do adventures; we’re going to do another one.”

The Mulcahys aren’t sure what the next adventure will be, but Dave has been “looking at a lot of YouTube videos for container houses.”

Their next journey, in whatever form it takes, will start almost exactly 33 years after their Montana adventure began. 

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